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At Nassau Community College, the shows went on

College theater, dance department adapted to the pandemic

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For longtime Baldwinite Richard Ginsburg, taking on a new role as chair of the Nassau Community College Theatre and Dance Department turned out to be more challenging than he anticipated, because he did so during a pandemic.

Ginsburg started the job last August, after some 36 years in the department, teaching set and costume design and lending his expertise to theater and dance productions at the college.

“I’m not working with strangers,” he said. “I’m working with family.”

And with the use of modern technology and support from the school’s administrators, the department’s operations changed with the onset of the pandemic — quickly.

Ginsburg, 63, recalled the last dress rehearsal for “Smokey Joe’s Café” last year, when the prospect of a lockdown became a reality. “When the school closed down by state decree, it was like a 2 o’clock phone call, and everybody was asked to be off campus by 3 o’clock,” he said. “And we were in shock . . . We closed down, say, 3:15. We put whatever we could away, and I went to my office and I gathered the hard drives and everything I thought I might need for a couple of weeks.”

The entire college geared up to go online, which meant that the faculty had to learn Zoom and adjust the curriculum accordingly. “We had one online class — theater appreciation — that had always been online,” Ginsburg explained. “But the rest of us are very tactile experiences, be it dance, theater, even theater history . . . all in-house classes, as they say, face to face. It was an abrupt reboot for teaching.”

Faculty members met on Zoom to discuss how to move forward. “In some ways, being the new chair, this became my normal,” he said. “I didn’t have to go, ‘Well, we used to do it another way. OK, we’re doing it this way.’”

The faculty had to reinvent and brainstorm innovative ways to continue teaching nearly 300 students in the department. Administrators helped professors and students adapt to the guidelines of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state orders to allow for some in-person classes so Ginsburg and his colleagues could “keep our educational goals and still function as a theater and dance department,” he said, adding that he was grateful to the NCC administration.

The dance program was moved to a larger space so that dancers could spread out. Acting classes changed venues, too, for the same reason, and plastic barriers were installed in between students. And campus studios were equipped with WiFi and 84-inch monitors to allow students tuning in via Zoom to participate.

“A lot of the faculty had to deal with dual modality of some students are face to face and some students are on Zoom,” Ginsburg said, “and you have to address them and give them material, and they have to be evaluated . . . at the same level.”

But in the arts, there’s learning in the classroom and there’s performance. “Without the performance space, there’s no proof in the pudding,” Ginsburg said, explaining that putting together seven or eight shows a year and performing each one 10 nights in a row helps students grow. That kind of growth can’t happen in a classroom, he said. Performances are the students’ labs.

The spread of Covid-19 meant that live audiences were a thing of the past, at least temporarily. After reimagining the format for productions, the department staged “Dracula” around Halloween via Zoom. Fully costumed actors used different Zoom backgrounds.

From there, the department focused more on becoming a miniature television and film production company. New equipment was brought in, and about 400 hours were devoted to revamping the school’s multipurpose ballroom with lighting, projection and other technical features for the dancers.

Dance students also learned to edit their own video reels — a new opportunity — to be able to market themselves after graduation.

“Life goes on and we move to the right,” Ginsburg said. “We have to shift. It is the nature of theater to reinvent itself and work its way out of every problem, because as the adage is, the show must go on, and we will find ways to make the show go on.”

In the past year, the department put on productions of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “Sistas on Fire,” a homemade variety show and more. And its first streaming production, Dominique Morisseau’s “Pipeline,” is scheduled for the end of April. While many of the shows are available online, alongside a donation button in lieu of purchasing tickets, “Pipeline” will charge viewers $5.

Ginsburg, who attended Hofstra University and earned a master’s in theater design at Brooklyn College, didn’t want to push his children into the arts, but they discovered them on their own. His kids, Max and Meredith, pursued their own arts dreams during and after attending Baldwin High School.